Dad was home, and that was an even better birthday present than the new baseball set.
Not that I minded the new ball and bat and glove. "Come on! Let's play!"
He shook his head. "Not today, son. I've got a lot to do. We're getting ready to start filming --"
"Oh, that's OK." My dad works on movies. How cool is that? They call him a "Best Boy" even though he's all grown up. And he calls me his best boy. Of course, I'm his only boy, but it's good to hear. I mean, movies! He hangs out with real movie stars!
The neighborhood kids showed up for my birthday party, just as he was leaving. "Where's your dad going?" Linda asked.
"He's working on a new cowboy movie!"
"Yeah. I'm gonna be like him someday and work on movies too."
And as I blew out the candles, that was what I wished for.
There was a small and very expensive work of art burning a hole in my pocket through the entire train ride home. I tried to read a newspaper, but I just couldn't keep my mind on it.
It was even worse once I got home, because my parents wanted to talk to me about all the pictures and articles I'd clipped for the shows I'd worked on, about how pleased they were by my grades, about how "My best boy is a man now!" You know, the kind of stuff parents don't tell you when you need to hear it most, but focus on when your mind is otherwise occupied.
I smiled politely, and asked Dad for the car keys. It was too bad Linda didn't live next door anymore, and I had to drive to her place now. She didn't know I was coming. I hoped she was home. She had to be home. But oh God what if her mother - or worse, her big brother - answers the door?
I rang the doorbell with my left hand while my right hand gripped the little box in my pocket, and swallowed hard as I noticed Linda herself approaching to answer it.
I pulled out the box and dropped to one knee as she opened the door.
"Linda, will you marry me?"
The new show was going to be a bear to work for. I could just tell. I had wanted the job, but I had to admit I wasn't looking forward to touring with this particular combination of egos. Dad had never mentioned this side of working in show business. Or, if he had, I had forgotten.
I spread out a set of gels on the workbench in the garage, trying to figure out how best to achieve the frightening-yet-flattering effect I had been asked to create. Jenny ran up to look. "Ooh, pretty!"
Jenny loved watching me work, those few times I worked at home. I called her the Best Girl. Her brother Jason wasn't interested in lights, except the sun and moon and stars outside.
"It's not supposed to be pretty, Best Girl. It's supposed to be scary."
"It can be pretty scary!" she said, bouncing - and then, without warning, she puked all over the gels.
"Damn it!" escaped at high decibel levels before I could stop myself.
Jenny started to cry. The phone started to ring. I grabbed it in one hand and a roll of paper towels in the other.
"How's my best boy? Grapevine says you're going on tour with Phantom next month. I look forward to seeing it, when it comes my way. I'd like to see you, too."
"Sure, Dad. Love to. If I get the time." I didn't want to blow him off - in fact, I'd rather be able to talk to him - but this was just not a good time. Especially since Jason was bolting for the bathroom with his hands over his mouth. "Kids have the flu. I have to go. Talk soon." I hung up.
Linda opened the door. "Honey, are you - oh."
"I could really use a hand here if I'm going to be able to save any of these gels at all."
She shook her head and turned her attention to the still-crying Jenny.
So often we hear that the show must go on.
It's why the lead actors have understudies and the ensemble has swings.
It's why I was so glad Jenny had been working for me all summer in the little Off-Off-Broadway theater I started at after the Phantom tour.
When I got the call, I was able to leave the show in Jenny's capable young hands and head immediately to the hospital. At that, I still wondered if I would be too late.
I had learned to spend time with my children, but had forgotten to spend it with my father.
Fortunately, I was not too late. His heart attack had been minor, as such things go.
All of us still had time. Best of all, when she joined us at the hospital after the show, Jenny was able to hear how proud her dad and her grandpa were of their Best Girl.
Credit: Inspired by Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle".